DXMachina (dxmachina) wrote,

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Knuckling Under

Stayed up late to watch the Red Sox - Yankees game last night. It was a great game, tense, with fine plays on both sides (Todd Walker made two great plays in the late innnings for the Sox to keep them in the game), and pretty good pitching. Joe Torre outmanaged Grady Little, but then Torre is probably the best in the game at maintaining his cool when things are falling apart around him, and getting the team back on track. To be fair to Little, his biggest mistake was leaving Pedro Martinez in too long, but managers are expected to stay with their big horse for as long as they can. Certainly that's what Torre did when he trotted out Mariano Rivera in the eleventh. Both were calculated risks. Torre's worked. Little didn't know when to fold.

The other mistake Little made was bringing Tim Wakefield in to relieve in a situation were one run wins the game immediately. Wakefield is a decent pitcher, and doesn't deserve a lot of the abuse that has been piled on him by Sox fans over the years. He's going to get abuse for last night, too, but it's not his fault. Knuckleball pitchers shouldn't be counted on to prevent the other team from scoring.

The thing about a knuckleball is that it's unpredictable. With a normal pitch, the way the ball rolls off the fingers of the hand makes it rotate. The greater the rotation, the greater the movement, a practical application of the Bernoulli effect. The rotation also stabilizes the ball, keeping it on it's path. For a knuckleball, the pitcher digs his fingernails into the seams of the ball, and as he releases it, he flicks his fingers outwards, canceling most of the stabilizing rotation the ball would normally get from the a normal release. (The name is a misnomer. The knuckles don't enter into it at all.) The ball flies straight and slow, but has no stability, so any puff of breeze, any updraft from a hot patch of sand, will alter it's course. You can see the ball rotate ever so slowly on it's way to the plate. From behind, it appears to corkscrew through the air. The batter swings through where the ball appears to be headed, but it's not there anymore, taken away by the flapping of a butterfly's wing. Throwing a knuckleball is fun, especially when you're a shortstop taking fielding practice, and you don't bother to mention to the first baseman that it's coming.

The problem is that no matter how fine a knuckleball pitcher you are, no matter how much you concentrate, you are dependent on the environment to provide the movement you need to keep the batter from hitting it square. Sometimes the environment doesn't come through. If nothing happens enroute, the knuckleball comes in slow and fat, like a batting practice pitch, and the batter will unload on it. You could see it last night in a couple of batters Wakefield faced. There were some foul balls that were ripped, including one Jason Giambi hit into the upper deck. Just got around on it too quickly. Aaron Boone just timed it a bit better, the ball didn't move, and Boone unloaded. Not Wakefield's fault at all.

It's funny how caught up I've gotten in the playoffs after having ignored most of the rest of the season. I think part of it was watching with the Somervillains at vw's moving party, when I was explaining some things about the game we were watching. It seems to have rekindled the analytical part of my baseball love.

I think it's time to reread Ball Four, Jim Bouton's book about his year with the Seattle Pilots, when he was a knuckleballing relief pitcher. One of the best baseball books ever written. He goes on at great length why knuckleballers should be starters, not relief pitchers.

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